Germany took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, and is naturally focused on tackling the pandemic and economic recovery. Nevertheless, innovation in the domain of digital health has remained high on the agenda. This is because the shift to new digital technologies, if managed correctly, can have a transformative and hugely positive effect on healthcare provision and the economy in Europe.

There are two areas in which great strides can be made towards a policy infrastructure that supports innovation in digital healthcare while protecting patients: increasing access to patient data for research-driven companies, and building a common European data space for health-related data. These steps will unlock greater innovation, allow it to happen faster, and help discover new ways to empower patients to take control of their care.

Currently, European policymakers are largely reticent to grapple with issues of data, particularly in relation to health. This was demonstrated by the surprising degree of hesitation over the use of tracking applications to improve the management of this and future pandemics.

However, this attitude does not reflect that of European citizens. Our 2019 Consumer Insights Survey found that 68% of Europeans (and 64% of Germans) felt comfortable with the idea their anonymised data would be used to support innovation.

Exploiting the opportunities of digitalisation does not mean removing protections on patient data, which is already used safely by research institutions and hospitals in Europe. As the pace of technological development increases, the conditions are ripe for change.

Move faster

It is an ambitious, but achievable, goal to weave together the health-related datasets of Europe into one, shared network. Quicker access to larger datasets would enable faster clinical trials, more efficient drug discovery and real-world assessment of medicines, and a shortening of the relatively long process of gaining regulatory approval in Europe.

Drive innovation

The pandemic has made clear the benefits both of moving quickly and having an enabling data infrastructure in place. Artificial intelligence and innovative use of data has helped us identify possible treatment options for COVID-19 patients, as well as better pandemic planning and response. With more and better data, even more can be done in response to pandemics and longstanding healthcare challenges.

Empower patients

Among the new treatment options being opened up are many that increase the capacity for patients to take control of their care. In the field of diabetes, for example, Lilly has developed solutions that use new technologies to give people on-demand personalised information, facilitating better two-way conversations between healthcare professionals and patients. In the long run, the data collected in the administration of solutions like this increases the level of insight into their real-world value, helping policymakers make better decisions with regard to healthcare.

Strategic necessity

The EU’s Industrial Strategy recognises the danger that failing to properly embrace digitalisation will cause Europe to fall behind counterparts in Asia and the US. It includes the ambition that Europe take the lead on digital innovation, becoming a standard-bearer for responsible policies that promote advancement and protect consumers.

This ambition must also include healthcare. Digital health, diagnostic technologies, medical devices and innovative medicines need to come together as the cornerstones of a globally competitive EU life sciences strategy. Integrated, open data must underpin a faster and more innovative research ecosystem that brings new products and technologies into being that work for the benefit of human health.